Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Fountain of Youth

Originally published on

The search for the Fountain of Youth was not going well. The sailing, however, was about as good as it gets aboard Quetzal. We were flying, blasting before the stirred-up trade winds on a deep reach. The GPS routinely flashed 10, 11 even 12 knots. The main was double reefed, to steady the boat, while a poled-out genoa provided all the horsepower we needed. It was a rollicking ride, and that was the problem.

I had decided to call my latest training passage “The Fountain of Youth Passage,” not because I was feeling old and stodgy and looking for some rejuvenation but because we were sailing from Ponce, Puerto Rico to St. Augustine. This route paralleled the one Juan Ponce de Leon sailed nearly 500 years ago. Historical rumor has it that he was searching for a natural spring with restorative powers. Nobody really knows if Ponce was in fact looking for the fountain, but we do know that he made two pretty important discoveries. The first was a flat, hot, snake- and insect-ridden peninsula called Florida, which, ironically, has been a fountain of youth of sorts for many retirees. And the second was a relentless current that made sailing south from St. Augustine nearly impossible, the Gulf Stream. Yet everybody associates poor old Ponce with his fabled fountain.

My crew for this passage included a couple of repeat victims, some fresh blood, and a couple looking for, well, looking for the fountain of youth. This last couple had almost no sailing experience, but they were enchanted by the prospect of a sea voyage and were game to make a bluewater passage. It all seemed so romantic in Ponce. I think they believed those little placards in the marine stores declaring that time spent sailing is not deducted from your lease on life. Sailing was the next challenge in their lives and they were on a mission to pack in, like beer in a cooler, as many life experiences as possible.

Once we cleared the Mona Passage, the trades kicked in and we took off. Slaloming down the sides of heaped up seas, you had to hold on, both on deck and down below. You know the old saying, “One hand for you, one hand for ship, blah, blah, bla.” It seems simple to most sailors but it is a difficult concept for non-sailors. They don’t like it when their cups fly off the table, when they roll from one side of the bunk to other or when they are flung against a bulkhead and slammed into each other. Nothing is easy at sea. Holding on to your food is a challenge, actually getting it into your mouth an accomplishment. Showers? Forget it, washing your face is a big deal. Unfortunately, it was becoming clear that at least half of the couple wanted off the boat. Ocean sailing was proving to be a bit too real, too rough, nothing like the beautiful pictures in SAILING Magazine and not at all romantic.

We made landfall at Grand Turk, a once charming colonial outpost that was leveled by Hurricane Ike last September and still looks like a war zone. It was sad, most of the structures are still covered with blue tarps and the few trees left standing were denuded. The lack of shade and privacy are the aftermath of hurricane. There was, however, a nice beachfront cantina, with a friendly bartender, Mauve, and she bolstered the couple’s reserve. Things would get better she assured them.

We pressed on for Rum Cay, 250 miles distant. The wind continued to blow with a vengeance and we made landfall 30 hours later! What sailing! We averaged more than 8 knots. Still, somewhere between the peak and valley of a cresting wave a decision was made. We’d head to Georgetown in the beautiful Exumas where the couple could fly back to the states. I was sad, but they weren’t. He explained. Hey, they gave a sailing a shot, and although he might have come to love it, she didn’t, and he supported her decision. That’s what love is all about. I grudgingly agreed, but thought to myself, you’ll never find the fountain of youth that way.

The next morning we sailed into the dreamy turquoise waters of Elizabeth Harbor. We made it just in time for them to catch their flight. The rest of us sought sanctuary in the bar at the Peace and Plenty Hotel. The bartender, Lermon, like Mauve before him, lifted my spirits. He called himself the Doctor of Libation. Serving up one Kalik after another, I began to feel better. I had felt like I’d failed to show this couple the magic and majesty of ocean sailing. That was my job after all, to help folks live their dreams. But Lermon saw it differently. Everyone was responsible for his or her own happiness he explained, “nobody else can do nothin ‘bout it man, nobody.”

Lermon was happy. He bounded about the bar with a spring in his step and a smile on his face. I guessed him to be in his 40s. He had pictures of his wife and kids all over the bar. Wait a minute, his kids looked to be nearly my age and his wife was definitely not a young woman. Wait a minute. How old was he? Do the math he said. I was born in 1942! Yikes, the Doctor of Libation was 67!

Nursing my latest Kalik and gazing out at my beautiful boat swinging to her anchor I realized that Lermon’s bar was the fountain of youth. If only the couple had known how close they were to sipping from the magical tap.


  1. Sorry to have missed you and the family while in Solomons. Reading this blog was like being there- you are a master of words even if not writing a book. Sailing adventures are my fountain of youth.
    Have great summer

  2. Lerman has a photographic memory as well, so if you have ever been there he will remember you and what you drink. Great spot, and hanging on the wall outside the P&P is great. We were hanging out drinking Kalik there one day while our laundry was being done by the Happy Vally folks and Junior was charged with picking up the wives and kids who were flying in for a sail up the chain to Bermuda. The Happy Valley van came by, stopped, said our laundry was next for delivery and drove off. My friend mused that it was paradise - he sat in the middle, drinking beer under a tree while his laundry was being done and his wife and kids picked up. Oh and Lerman remebered us from the prior November, when we took off for the Caribbean, stopped for a drink of course, before we left.